Bob Cuddy: Building in remote areas fuels fires

Bob Cuddy: Building in remote areas fuels fires

10 August 2008

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USA — Fire is on most people’s minds this summer, as it is with Californians most every summer. One question it sends crackling into my mind is this: Should people be allowed to build a house out in the middle of nowhere, if that home creates a potential fire hazard?

It’s not an idle question. People want their rural beauty, and they’re willing to take chances.

It’s not hard to imagine the conversation as Southern Californians pop into town to talk to locals about escaping the urban clamor.

Would-be Resident: I want my dream home here in lovely San Luis Obispo County, and I need some advice.

Chamber of Commerce Person: Glad to help. Have you found a place?

WBR: Yeah. It’s at the end of Poso Del Mundo Canyon, on Back of Beyond Ridge.

CCP: It’s nice out there, all right. But you know, it’s dangerous: Fire.

WBR: I don’t care. I’ve worked hard all my life and I gotta have what I gotta have.

This conversation is taking place throughout the ready-to-burn American West. But our county is particularly vulnerable, located, as it is, midway between two great metropolitan areas and west of a third.

Unfortunately, these dream homes can become a graveyard for a firefighter sent in to save them when the flames come. A fire that starts there can destroy others’ dream houses.

“A lot of counties are grappling with the question of wildland fire hazards,” says Bill Winter of County/Cal Fire.

County/Cal Fire is bringing its fire protection master plan, which has not been updated since 1992, into the new millennium.

“Since 1992, there have been dramatic increases in population” and other changes, Fire Chief Matt Jenkins wrote the Board of Supervisors in a report.

The 1992 master plan “is no longer a valid tool for planning,” he wrote.

Wildfires are not the sole focus of the new plan, by Emergency Services Consulting Inc. It covers all aspects of fire planning and is full of jargon like “geographic risk analysis” and “development of standards of cover.”

What it all means is that the consultant is going to look at every way possible to protect the residents of this county against fire, now and in the future.

Of necessity, it will explore the problems of wildland fires, through its findings on land use and development.

But neither a consultant nor County Fire can fully protect people in rural areas from fire. It will take political will to do that.

Local governments control building with zoning and general plans and variances and permits. But they cannot come right out and say to Would-be Resident, “You want to build where? Are you nuts? That would be a death trap. You can’t do that!”

If they said such a horrid thing, they would supposedly be violating property rights.

But from where I sit, property rights don’t give you permission to endanger a firefighter or start a wildfire.

When the time comes, let’s hope the county government can find a legal way to keep people from courting destruction by fire, and leave remote canyons to the coyotes.

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